Saturday, October 10, 2015

Project 365: Movies 203 - 208

203 / 365: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
© Sony Pictures Classics

Bel Powley is my new hero and woman-crush. She's beautiful, and talented, and I want us to be best friends. Her first major film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, whose art is incorporated throughout, and Powley gives one of the most honest performances of the year. A new favorite that I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone who crosses my path, like you.

Set in the 1970s, Minnie (Powley) is a fifteen year old budding artist living in San Francisco with her free-spirited mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), when she gets a crush on—and has her first sexual encounter with—her mom's boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Our story begins as Minnie confesses excitedly into a cassette tape recorder that she has just lost her virginity, and when she proceeds to share her every thought and recount her every experience of this sexual awakening, she discovers a feminine power and confidence that can only come from knowing exactly what you want. Brought gloriously to life with the help of animated imaginings to represent the flights of fancy and tragedy that come with being a teenage girl, Minnie navigates her unexpected, but completely welcome, education on sex, love, and heartbreak.

This is a film about self-discovery, self-awareness, and self-love—coincidentally, in that order. A full spectrum of foolhardy teenage-hood is explored, all through the eyes of one young girl, and it celebrates her youth and freedom without ever belittling her experiences. It's rare to see a movie so fully led by its female lead, and Powley is electric as Minnie. You never feel like you're watching this girl, this child, be exploited, despite the overt nudity and sexual situations. Powley owns Minnie's sexuality as much as she owns her naiveté, turning her awakening into an evolution.

The supporting cast is just as dynamic. Wiig's role as Minnie's sexually free and emotionally lost mother is vital to understanding Minnie's limited perspective on life, as well as her curiosities about men. Even Christopher Meloni's momentary appearance as Minnie's absentee former step-father, Pascal, is telling, incorporated seamlessly into the story to add ever more layers to this teen's personality. And finally, there's Skarsgård, who manages to avoid coming off looking like a predator (even with the 70s porn-stache) by noticeably and believably falling under Minnie's spell, fighting his own attractions uselessly. And we can't really blame him. Powley is completely intoxicating, and you can't help but watch her and wish you'd had her confidence and bravery when you were young.

A bold script from first time writer/director, Marielle Heller, who spilled her heart and soul into this movie. Even in its most subtle or overly cinematic moments, Diary of a Teenage Girl is relatable. The seventies backdrop doesn't only serve a visual or stylistic purpose (even though it does, a strong one), it's also there to inform the political and social climate of the time. The more I think back on this one, the more I adore it. Expect a mention on my End of Year Best Lists, for sure.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

204 / 365: Rear Window (1954)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #48 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

205 / 365: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
© Paramount Pictures

I knew I avoided this movie like the plague for a reason. The most confounding thing is how much I detested this movie, yet it still managed to make me have some very deep feels. Mostly for mutant rat/Samurai master Splinter, who deserves a serious World's Best Dad mug. But that doesn't excuse how terrible this movie is, or how unnecessary it was.

Inexplicably, this movie stars Megan Fox (who, no hate, I actually adore—thanks Jennifer's Body!) as reporter April O'Neil, the daughter of the late, great scientist Dr. O'Neil, whose research resulted in the mutation of its animal test subjects: a rat and a group of turtles rescued and released in the sewers. Years later, April discovers their secret as they've mutated into human-like creatures, trained for combat with ninja skills. Teenage Turtle brothers Donatello, Michaelangelo, Rafael, and Leonardo are 'roided out and out for vengeance when supervillian Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) unleashes his plan for total domination on the city, threatening everything they love.

The Turtles pretty much have the social grace of home-schooled kids. Admittedly the script's fault, they're not given much to work with, and every line feels like an Easter egg for fans that no one really wanted. It also takes for. ev. er. for anything to actually happen. It's like the filmmakers were afraid we wouldn't "get it," so we're overloaded with backstory and origins and the like--no, no, we were there in the eighties, we remember that they are mutants who like pizza. Remember how they like pizza? Yeah, the movie will remind you, a LOT.

To the movie's singular credit, there is still a nostalgia factor. I hadn't watched anything related to TMNT for decades, not since I was a kindergartner who got to watch the old 80's movies during daycare every week if I was good and took my nap. And believe me, I took my damn nap, because I wanted to watch these teenage mutant turtles Cowabunga! their way through the New York City sewer system. But regardless, I'd rather watch the originals—or even better, the cartoon!—because this entire production is bombastic and distracting, and no one comes out looking good. Especially Will Arnett, who took this role... I'm not really sure why.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

206 / 365: Mistress America (2015)
© Fox Searchlight Pictures

Co-written by the team behind Frances Ha, one of my top rated movies during this Project 365, we're once again introduced to a cast of characters driven by conversation and ulterior motives that connect with the audience in unexpected ways.

Lonely college freshman, Tracy (Lola Kirke), arrives at school in New York City to pursue creative writing. When finding a social circle doesn't happen right away, Tracy takes her mom's advice and reaches out to her 30-year-old soon-to-be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke is a social shameless social butterfly, creative and confident despite her history of distracted entrepreneurship. As Tracy falls under Brooke's spell, she can't help but notice the webs of delusion that Brooke spins as she reveals her grudges, failures, and emotional instability veiled in a superiority complex.

Tracy's opening sequence experience during her first few days at college mirrored mine to a frightening degree. She might have an idea of who she is, but she's completely clueless about how to be that out in the real world with people who might not be patient enough to figure her out. If you're lucky enough to score an incredible roommate your first time out to bat, you can band together to figure out this crazy new world together. But what if you don't? What if you're alone and looking for a friend, just one friend, to stick. It can feel like a perpetual audition that you're doomed to tank. Being taken under the wing of an adventurous, older friend can feel like complete freedom, and that's what Brooke is. She's exciting, but just oblivious enough for Tracy to not be completely intimidated.

While there's a lot to enjoy about this movie, the best sequence is the lengthy descent on the home of Brooke's former best friend and current nemesis, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), who stole her fiancee and her cats. The dialogue is frantic and hysterical, enough to make your head spin but not throw you out of the film. Brooke is delusional to a fault, but it's tampered by how completely harmless she is. Tracy acts as a bit of a wallflower in the story—observant and quiet, but significantly more harmful in ways she doesn't even understand.

The only similarity between Brooke and Gerwig's Frances is their obvious lack of self-awareness. There might be an argument that they have an over-abundance of self-awareness that blinds them to other people entirely, but tomato/tomatoe, right? Where Gerwig understands character most is in their levels of maturity, and how characters grow through that pivotal shift. Mistress America may not have the powerful sucker punch that Frances Ha had, but that's okay. It didn't need to. In fact, I'm glad it didn't, because I might not have enjoyed this as much. Playful and light, it has a lot to offer, especially in the talents of Lola Kirke.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

207 / 365: Bloodsucking Bastards (2015)
© Scream Factory

I think that this film pitch went something like this: "Office Space meets Idle Hands, but with vampires." End of pitch, because quite simply, that's all this is. Workplace horror comedies aren't too common, despite how obvious the combination is. This movie's potential was pretty solid, but it's execution is noticeably weak. When you have all the ingredients for success, it's disappointing when it's such an underwhelming experience.

Evan (Fran Kranz) is a loyal and hopeful interim manager at a soulless sales corporation trying to set himself apart from his useless co-worker buddies so he can finally get a promotion. When he's passed over for the manager job in favor of an old college rival, Max (Pedro Pascal), he begins to notice that the office is slowly changing... and everyone in it is being turned into vampires. In order to survive, he must team up with his best friend and lazy co-worker, Tim (Joey Kern), and save his ex-girlfriend and the head of HR, Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick, who you might remember as 'For Your Consideration' Anne Hathaway!), from being seduced by Max and turned into a vamp herself.

The dialogue was stale but funny. Anyone who isn't Evan talks about everything in overly nonchalant ways; an attempt at comedy that doesn't always land, but has its moments. Kern's Tim has the best moments, especially when he chats with recently turned buddy, Andrew (Justin Ware), about who's gonna kill who first. Kranz is a perpetual supporting man, so it's nice to see him step into a starring role. It's too bad that it doesn't give him any subtleties to work with, though, and even his chemistry with Fitzpatrick is lukewarm.

On a positive note, this movie is bloody. Like buckets and buckets of blood. Easily half of the budget was spent on drenching this 20'x20' windowless office room with corn syrup, so while the story is a bit half-baked, you'll at least walk away with the satisfying feeling of carnage delivered. A easy Halloween renter for people like me who prefer their horror funny instead of scary.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

208 / 365: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
© Buena Vista Pictures

This high school adaptation of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" doesn't skirt away from its source material. It's not a subtle remake, with more than enough nods to the play, but the nineties snapshot gives it a little something extra special.

Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the new kid at school, starting his senior year. While getting the social ladder rundown during lunch by A.V. nerd, Michael (David Krumholtz), he sees heaven personified in the form of sophomore, Bianca Stratford (Alex Mack Larisa Oleynik). Devastated when he finds out she's only allowed to date when her anti-social and hostile sister, Kat (Julia Stiles), does, Cameron goes on a mission to find a single guy at school who's willing to take on the impossible task of courting Kat, bringing him face to face with rumored criminal and psychopath, Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). Things only get more complicated when popular pretty-boy, Joey (Andrew Keegan), tries to get in on the action and take the naive Bianca for himself.

It's charm might be admittedly lost on anyone who's not (a) remembering watching this movie during their high school years, or (b) experiencing high school for the first time, but who cares? The acting is a bit surface level, the actors all reading the lines well, but with not a lot of emotions behind the eyes. At the same time, this is an all-star cast, well before any of them were stars. In my middle school years, Keegan and Oleynik were far bigger stars in my mind than anyone else. Heath Ledger is always a delight to watch, and this is the rare movie from his filmography where he gets to use his lovely Aussie accent. This was the first movie I watched when I found out he passed away back in 2008, because this is the movie that started it all for me as a fan. Same with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This is also one of the only movies where the shooting location had as big an impact on me as the story itself. The high school is a real public high school, Stadium High in Tacoma, WA—nicknamed "The Brown Castle," I was and still am completely obsessed with it. It's beautiful, and I'm jealous of anyone who got to go there. I even forced my friends to take a detour on a Seattle road trip just to stop there to see it. It truly is as magnificent as it looks. A most memorable backdrop for a memorable, albeit simple, movie. With its straight-forward and predictable story, it's still a joy to watch. Besides, it's worth it to listen to Letters to Cleo rock out on that soundtrack.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: Yes

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